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For the Ornette Coleman album see Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation.
Free jazz
Stylistic origins Jazz
Cultural origins 1950s in the United States
Typical instruments Saxophone, Trumpet, Trombone, Piano, Guitar, Double Bass, Drums
Derivative forms Modern Creative, Loft jazz, Experimental rock
Fusion genres
Post-metal - Progressive rock - Punk jazz
Regional scenes
European free jazz
Other topics
Avant-garde jazz - Free improvisation

Free jazz is an approach to jazz music that was first developed in the 1950s and 1960s. Though the music produced by free jazz pioneers varied widely, the common feature was a dissatisfaction with the limitations of bebop, hard bop, and modal jazz, which had developed in the 1940s and 1950s. Each in their own way, free jazz musicians attempted to alter, extend, or break down the conventions of jazz, often by discarding hitherto invariable features of jazz, such as fixed chord changes or tempos. While usually considered experimental and avant-garde, free jazz has also oppositely been conceived as an attempt to return jazz to its "primitive", often religious roots, and emphasis on collective improvisation.

Free jazz is most strongly associated with the 1950s innovations of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and the later works of saxophonist John Coltrane. Other important pioneers included Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon, and Sun Ra. Although today "free jazz" is the generally-used term, many other terms were used to describe the loosely-defined movement, including "avant-garde", "energy music" and "The New Thing". Free jazz players were often said to be playing "outside" or "out" (as opposed to "inside", that is, conventionally).[1]

Contents

Definition

There is no universally accepted definition of free jazz, and any proposed definition is complicated by many musicians in other styles drawing on free jazz, or free jazz sometimes blending with other genres. Many musicians also tend to reject efforts at classification, regarding them as useless or unduly limiting.

Free jazz uses jazz idioms, and like jazz it places an aesthetic premium on expressing the "voice" or "sound" of the musician, as opposed to the classical tradition in which the performer is seen more as expressing the thoughts of the composer. Many free jazz musicians, notably Pharoah Sanders and John Coltrane, use harsh overblowing techniques or otherwise elicit unconventional sounds from their instruments. Earlier jazz styles typically were built on a framework of song forms, such as the twelve-bar blues or the 32-bar AABA popular song form, with a set framework of chord changes. In free jazz, the dependence on a fixed and preestablished form is eliminated, and the role of improvisation is correspondingly increased. As guitarist Marc Ribot has remarked, free jazz musicians like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, "although they were freeing up certain strictures of bebop, were in fact each developing new structures of composition."[1]

Typically this kind of music is played by small groups of musicians, but some has more. For example, John Coltrane's 1965 album Ascension, uses eleven musicians. Many critics, particularly at the music's inception, suspected that the abandonment of familiar elements of jazz pointed to a lack of technique on the part of the musicians. Today such views are more marginal, and the music has built up a tradition and a body of accompanying critical writing. It remains less commercially popular than most other forms of jazz.

Beyond this, free jazz is most easily characterized in contrast with what we refer to here as "other forms of jazz", an umbrella which covers ragtime, dixieland, swing, bebop, cool jazz, jazz fusion, and other styles.

Other forms of jazz use clear regular meters and strongly-pulsed rhythms, usually in 4/4 or (less often) 3/4. Free jazz normally retains a general pulsation and often swings but without regular meter, and often with frequent accelerando and ritardando, giving an impression of the rhythm moving in waves. Often players in an ensemble adopt different tempi. Despite all of this, it is still very often possible to tap one's foot to a free jazz performance; meter is more freely variable but has not disappeared entirely.

Non-free jazz forms used harmonic structures (usually cycles of diatonic chords). Improvisors played solos using notes based on the notes in the chords. Free jazz almost by definition dispenses with such structures, but also by definition (it is, after all, "jazz" as much as it is "free") it retains much of the language of earlier jazz playing. It is therefore very common to hear diatonic, altered dominant and blues phrases in this music. It is also fairly common for free jazz songs to use an "open vamp" of one chord for solos, like Coltrane's later recordings of the song "Afro Blue" to underpin a performance (see modal jazz). In fact, many lead sheets of Ornette Coleman's compositions contain the instructions, e.g. "solos in B-flat; disregard the form".

Finally, some forms use composed melodies as the basis for group performance and improvisation. Free jazz practitioners sometimes use such material, and sometimes do not. In some music which is called "free jazz", other compositional structures are employed, some of them very detailed and complex; the music of Anthony Braxton furnishes many examples. It would perhaps be best to call this modern or avant-garde jazz, reserving the term "free jazz" for music with few or no pre-composed elements.

History

The earliest documented example of free-form improvisation is a pair of 1949 recordings for Capitol by a group led by Lennie Tristano, "Intuition" and "Digression". These do not, however, seem to have had a direct influence on the later free jazz movement.

The mid-1950s recordings of Ornette Coleman for Contemporary (Something Else! and Tomorrow Is the Question) and the first two albums by Cecil Taylor (Jazz Advance and Looking Ahead) mark the beginnings of free jazz, though they still retain a hold on bebop and hard bop languages. The movement received its biggest impetus (and its name), however, when Coleman moved from the West Coast to New York and was signed to Atlantic Records: albums such as The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century marked a radical step beyond his more conventional early work, and when he released a 1960 recording titled Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, the name stuck to the movement as a whole.

Much of Sun Ra's music could be classified as free jazz, especially his work from the 1960s, although Sun Ra said repeatedly that his music was written and boasted that what he wrote sounded more free than what "the freedom boys" played.

Some of bassist Charles Mingus' work was also important in establishing free jazz. Of particular note are his early Atlantic albums, such as The Clown, Tijuana Moods, and most notably Pithecanthropus Erectus, the title song of which contained one section that was freely improvised in a style unrelated to the song's melody or chordal structure.

Since the mid-1950s, saxophonist Jackie McLean had been exploring a concept he called "The Big Room", where the often strict rules of bebop could be loosened or abandoned at will. Similarly, Cecil Taylor, the most prominent free jazz pianist, began stretching the bop boundaries as early as 1956.

The Jimmy Giuffre Trio (with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow) received little attention during their original incarnation from 1960-62, but afterwards were regarded as one of the most innovative free jazz ensembles.

Eric Dolphy's work with Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, and Chico Hamilton, along with his solo work, helped to set the stage for free jazz in the music community.

In Europe, free jazz first flowered through the experiments of expatriate Jamaican alto saxophonist Joe Harriott. Beginning in the late 1950s, he worked on his own distinctive concept of what he termed free form. These explorations were parallel to Coleman's in many respects but Harriott's work was barely known outside of England. Beginning in the mid-1960s, players such as guitarist Derek Bailey, saxophonists Peter Brötzmann and Evan Parker and drummer John Stevens developed an idiom that came to be called "free improvisation". It drew sustenance from free jazz while moving much further from jazz tradition (often drawing equally on contemporary composers such as Anton Webern and John Cage for inspiration).

Free jazz has primarily been an instrumental genre. However, Jeanne Lee was a notable free jazz vocalist; others such as Sheila Jordan, Linda Sharrock, and Patty Waters also made notable contributions to the genre.

Much of the multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton's music could be classified as free jazz. His Ghost Trance Music, which introduces a steady pulse to his music, also allows the simultaneous performance of any piece by the performers. Braxton has recorded with many of the free jazz musicians, including Ornette Coleman and European free improvisers such as Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, and the Globe Unity Orchestra.

The 1960s free jazz ethos was continued in the New York 1970s "loft jazz" scene (in locations such as Sam Rivers' Studio RivBea), and the 1980s "downtown" scene associated with places such as the Knitting Factory. A younger generation of players including David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp, William Parker and Joe Morris continued to play free jazz inspired by the ground-breaking work of the 1960s New Thing. Like other styles of jazz, free jazz also adopted elements of contemporary rock, funk and pop music: Ornette Coleman was a leader in this vein, embracing electric music with his 1970s band Prime Time, and a number of other players including James Blood Ulmer, Sonny Sharrock, and Ronald Shannon Jackson forged styles combining elements of free jazz and fusion.

The 1981 documentary film Imagine the Sound explores free jazz through interviews with and performances by Archie Shepp, Paul Bley, Cecil Taylor and Bill Dixon.

Many musicians are keeping the free jazz style alive in the present day. Two major scenes are based in New York and Chicago. In New York, players include William Parker, Matana Roberts, Chad Taylor, John Zorn, Medeski Martin and Wood, Assif Tsahar, Tom Abbs, and Chris Speed. In Chicago, notable performers are Fred Anderson, David Boykin, Nicole Mitchell, Ernest Dawkins, Josh Berman, Ken Vandermark, and Hamid Drake.

Philosophies

The emergence of free jazz, like previous developments in jazz, was largely tied to the African-American experience. This idea can be seen in the approaches of the musicians themselves, as in Ornette Coleman's This Is Our Music (1960). Both these developments, bebop in 1940 and free jazz in 1960, reveal directions that were more intellectual, less danceable, and less marketable to white audiences. Musicians like Shepp, the Art Ensemble of Chicago (the flagship group of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians or AACM), and Sun Ra made Black identity an integral part of their public personae as musicians, more visibly than previous generations of jazz musicians. This is not to say that the music was racially segregated; white bassist Charlie Haden was a member of Ornette Coleman's influential quartet, and free jazz's principles were quickly assimilated into musical developments in all corners of global society.

Many free jazz musicians regard the music as signifying in a broadly religious way, or to have gnostic or mystical connotations, as an aide to meditation or self-reflection, as evidenced by Coltrane's Om album, or Charles Gayle's Repent. Other may emphasize nihilism, determinism and fatalism, as exemplified in the Brötzmann-designed Last Exit album cover showing a smashed, pulverized crow. As traditional mysticism denigrates the significance of transitory reality and the material world, highlighting the meaningless of time and the essentiality of living in the moment, the two outlooks are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Some African-American free jazz artists could also be seen as gnostic, by way of the blues tradition, highlighting the arbitrariness, senselessness and pain of life and phenomenal consciousness, with a subtext of transcendence by way of a higher power. See, for example, Archie Shepp's "Rufus (Swung, his face at last to the wind, then his neck snapped)" which dramatizes the lynching of an African-American slave.

Free jazz in the world

Outside of North America, free jazz scenes have become established in Europe and Japan. Alongside the aforementioned Joe Harriott, saxophonists Peter Brötzmann, Evan Parker, trombonist Conny Bauer, guitarist Derek Bailey and drummer Han Bennink were among the most well-known early European free jazz performers. European free jazz can generally be seen as approaching free improvisation, with an ever more distant relationship to jazz tradition. That being said, specifically Brötzmann has had a significant impact on the free jazz players of the U.S. Also behind iron curtain was relatively active free jazz scene which producted great musicians like Tomasz Stanko, Zbigniew Seifert, Vladimir Chekasin, Vyacheslav Ganelin and Vladimir Tarasov. Japanese guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi and saxophonist Kaoru Abe, among others, took free jazz in another direction, approaching the energy levels of noise. Some international jazz musicians have come to North America and become immersed in free jazz, most notably Ivo Perelman from Brazil and Gato Barbieri of Argentina (this influence is evident in Barbieri's early work, but fades in his later, more commercially oriented efforts). American musicians like Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Milford Graves, and Pharoah Sanders integrated elements of the music of Africa, India, and the Middle East for a sort of World music-influenced free jazz.

Notes

References

  • Jost, Ekkehard (1974). Free Jazz. Studies in Jazz Research 4. Graz: Universal Edition. ISBN 3702400133.  
  • Litweiler, John (1984). The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958. New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80377-1.  
  • Rivelli, Pauline, and Robert Levin (eds.) (1979). Giants of Black Music. New York: Da Capo Press.   Articles from Jazz & Pop Magazine. Reprint of the 1970 edition, New York: World Publishing Co.
  • Sinclair, John, and Robert Levin (1971). Music & Politics. New York: World Publishing Co..  
  • Sklower, Jedediah (2006). Free Jazz, la catastrophe féconde. Une histoire du monde éclaté du jazz en France (1960-1982). Collection logiques sociales. Paris: Harmattan. ISBN 2296014402.  
  • Such, David Glen (1993). Avant-Garde Jazz Musicians: Performing "Out There". Iowa City: University Of Iowa Press. ISBN 0877454329 (cloth) ISBN 0877454353 (pbk.)

External links

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